Simple answer: Apparently more and more brands do. China’s virtual influencers promote an extensive range of products. With digital collectibles (China’s version of NFTs) and other digital products on the rise, their staying power seems to be real. So… Are we talking virtual reality or insanity?
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November 15, newsflash: “FBI ‘extremely concerned’ about China’s influence through TikTok on U.S. users,” CNBC reported. Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray’s remarks built on those from other government officials and members of U.S. Congress who have expressed deep skepticism about the “ability of the Chinese-owned video platform [its parent company is Beijing-based Bytedance] to protect U.S. user information from an adversarial government.”
As a resident of China’s capital who may not be on TikTok but certainly is on its Chinese peer, or should we say “parent,” Douyin, Wray’s remarks caused the mind of this fashion and urban culture-obsessed author to wander and wonder… Who in the Middle Kingdom’s social media scene actually wields the biggest influence of them all?
The answer was staring her in the face: the virtual idol.
A Double Act
China’s virtual idols, also referred to as virtual key opinion leaders (KOL) or influencers, promote an extensive range of products. And it’s increasingly difficult to tell them apart from actual humans. Whether or not that’s a good thing, remains open to debate. But with digital products, think digital collectibles (China’s version of NFTs) and other innovations, on the rise, their staying power seems to be real.
During China’s annual Double 11 online shopping extravaganza, which kicked off presales in late October this year and zoomed to its zenith on November 11, it’s all systems go for top players to show off their marketing chops. Over the past year, that’s meant utilizing the technological and digital advancements surging through the country’s e-commerce landscape, as well as tapping into local consumers’ changing palettes–particularly catering to Gen Z’s spending power.
China’s e-commerce giant and Double 11 initiator Alibaba also utilized its popular virtual idol and employee, Ayayi, during its retail fest. This first metahuman, or a hyper-realistic digital human, is the brainchild of leading technology supplier RM Inc. and made her debut on Chinese Pinterest slash shopping platform Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book), mainly targeting young female customers living in the nation’s top-tier cities, on May 20 last year. Ayayi rapidly gained 40,000 followers thanks to her incredible realism and the fact many immediately idolized her flawless skin and perfect makeup. Alibaba’s virtual male idol Noah, first unveiled in May, took center stage to promote electronics giant Haier during Double 11.
As part of Alibaba’s Metaverse Art Exhibitions, broadcast on both its Taobao and Tmall shopping platforms on the first day of presales, the dynamic metahuman duo presented a series of products and experiences to consumers via virtual reality.
This new generation of idols, models, influencers, and whatchamacallits is well on its way to becoming the latest revolutionary advertising tactic. But the question remains… What’s their appeal?
Flaunting the flaws
“Your skin appears to be a bit dry,” a netizen commented on a short video posted by Angie, a popular influencer who made her first Chinese social media appearance in the fall of 2020. “You should put on a [moisturizing] mask.” Here’s the thing: just like Ayayi, Angie, too, isn’t even a real person; she’s a virtual idol.
But unlike flawless Ayayi, Angie flaunts her flaws; plus, she doesn’t pose in designer clothing, walk the runway or promote skincare routines. She’s a sweet 18-year-old with flushed cheeks and a short dark do casually tucked behind her ears. This idol even cries and enjoys feeling the wind graze her face and eating ice cream. She plays the guitar and the piano and performs for small crowds wearing a baggy jumpsuit and loves doing regular ‘stuff.’ And that’s why she has connected with a significant fanbase. Between Weibo, China’s Twitter, and Douyin, Angie already has roughly 350k followers who identify with her simple “lifestyle.”
Oh, and she likes to yawn.
China’s virtual influencer is swiftly becoming a force to be reckoned with. Their mostly Gen-Z and millennial audience now reaches almost 390 million people. According to Statista.com, China’s virtual idol market was worth $960 million in 2021, bringing an extra value of $15.8 billion to related sectors. Projections indicate the latter figure will increase by about 70 percent each year, set to reach $49.3 billion by 2023.
Chinese social media platforms offer this new generation of influencers a massive variety of commercial opportunities to expand their audiences. “Virtual KOLS are taking them by embodying all kinds of different characters: from the average girl next door to the next top model, from hyper-realistic rendered images to synthetic comic representations, from selling products in live-streams to telling short stories in social media story formats. The possibilities for engagement are endless and Chinese virtual KOLS are exploring every angle,” according to Beijing-based China market research firm Daxue Consulting.
The success of these idols derives from their ability to connect with fans through a broad, complex social media web. They use platforms like Weibo, Bilibili and Douyin—so, just to confirm, that’s China’s Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok, respectively—as well as shopping platforms like Little Red Book or Taobao. These main stages, not available to Western shoppers, provide virtual KOLs with assorted possibilities to grow their online followings and cash in on their connections with fans.
Being virtual is all the hype right now, and many brands want a piece of the pixels.
As the social media crawl continues, this whole virtual idol scene at first glance, or even when scratching the surface, appears very catchy indeed. But it does leave yours truly to ponder that ever-elusive question…. What’s the catch?
There are many unique advantages to using virtual idols. They don’t have to deal with restrictions of time, space, physical conditions, etc. For both fans and businesses, virtual influencers do not have dark sides so their public profile will always remain unblemished. Furthermore, they do not age, but they can continually evolve with technology; that said, they can continue to grow with fans. Hence, their reputation will stay intact, their content production efficient, and their potential will only become greater.
In the long run, the boundary between virtual reality and actual reality will only grow increasingly blurred, and the user experience will become more immersive. According to experts in the digital fields, the metaverse, where immersion and participation reach their peaks, will become the ultimate form of the Internet. Whether or not that’s a good thing and whether increased immersion in virtual reality will eventually lead to some type of “insanity,” only time will tell.
But China isn’t one to wait and see.
The Chinese Government in January this year issued a state-sanctioned report warning Internet companies to tread carefully when looking to deploy virtual KOLs slash idols in the metaverse. The publication, titled “The Prospective Research Report on Public Opinion Risk Management in the Virtual Idol Industry,” also warned of “public opinion bubbles hyping metaverse interest beyond reality,” basically cautioning people not to idolize the new sphere.
Beijing getting involved in the sector doesn’t come as too big a surprise. The state already cracked down on the country’s “chaotic” fan culture in the summer of 2021 and virtual influencers may not be safe from censorship either, it seems, with the report vaguely noting some virtual idols are “used to engage in illegal activities” that “may affect and impact social cohesion and values” and pose a risk through promoting the same intense fan culture reserved for their human counterparts.
“The problem of virtual idols in cyberspace may lead to a crisis of trust in real-life society,” the report read.
Beijing does have a point. “Academic studies describe the shift from standard fandom to intense-personal celebrity worship as borderline pathological behavior,” according to the South China Morning Post in an August 2021 piece titled “Why is China’s celebrity-obsessed fan culture so out-of-control?”
And with the intensifying influence of social media and its virtual idol-dom, that editorial’s leading question remains valid. But here’s another one…
Who are the actual humans influencing the virtual ones?
This is an edited version of Elsbeth van Paridon’s article first published in Beijing Review
FEATURED IMAGE: MEET NOAH, ALIBABA’s virtual influencer who debuted on May 7, 2022, and instantly amassed over 54,000 followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter. (Screenshot)
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